During the ongoing debate about same sex marriage, in New Jersey and throughout the country, there have been those who have called for government to get out of the marriage business all together.
In New Jersey it is a crime to solemnize a marriage without a license. Anyone who presides over a marriage ceremony for a couple who does not have a license is subject to a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.
Government did not always control marriage, according to Stephanie Coontz, an author who teaches history and and family studies and Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.
In a November, 2007 OpEd piece published in the New York Times, Taking Marriage Private, Coontz said that for most of Western history, the government was not involved in marriage. Rather than an ‘institution,” marriage was a private contract between families. If parents approved on a marriage, it was valid. Church or State had nothing to do with it.
For 16 centuries the Catholic Church deemed a couple to be married if they said they were. Not until 1215 did the Church deem that a marriage ceremony had to take place in a church in order for a union to be “licit.” Yet couples married illicitly had the same rights and obligations as those who went to the chapel.
Government didn’t get involved until the 16th century in Europe. Coontz says the European laws were, in part, to protect parental control of marriages.
The American colonies required that marriages be registered, but in the mid-19th century state supreme courts ruled that public cohabitation was evidence of a valid marriage. (Who knew that people cohabited publicly back then?)
In the late 19th century the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and control who could be married.
Marriage, and the laws governing it continued to evolve during the 20th century. Interracial marriages were prohibited for whites, then they were allowed again.
As the entitlement culture emerged, marriage licenses became a determining factor in the distribution of benefits, inheritance, and health care. Coontz said this made sense in the 1950’s because almost all adults were married.
But that is no longer the case. When Coontz wrote her OpEd piece in 2007, she said that half of all adults ages 25-29 were unmarried and 40% of American children were born to unmarried parents. Last week, The New York Times reported that as of 2009, 53% of births to American women under 30 were out of wedlock.
As out of wedlock births have become more common the stigma of “illegitimacy” has faded. That’s one reason sited as a cause of the surge in births outside of marriage. Another major reason sited by the mothers The Times interviewed is the government “safety net.”
The Times reporters Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise spoke to dozens of people in Lorain, Ohio, a blue-collar town west of Cleveland where the decline of the married two-parent family has been especially steep, with 63 percent of births to women under 30 occurring outside of marriage. The young parents of Lorain saidtheir reliance on the government safety net encouraged them to stay single and that they didn’t trust their youthful peers to be reliable partners. Many said they would like to be married — just not right now, and not to each other.
It seems pretty clear that government regulating marriage hasn’t worked. It also seems pretty clear that government entitlement programs have taken a massive toll on both the institution of marriage and the institution of family.